Bifurcation

In today’s society, marketing is king. The wikipedia entry for marketing includes the following description:

“taking actions to create, grow, maintain, defend and own markets”

While most people think of marketing in commercial terms, it also applies to politics, where the marketing is more commonly referred to as ‘spin.’ George Ure has an interesting graphic in this week’s news describing how spin works, with everyone buying into the left/right continuum when it’s really ‘haves’/’have nots’. The ‘haves’ are defending their markets quite well and are consolidating their position by slowly shunting the lower echelon of the ‘haves’ (i.e. the middle class) back into the realm of the ‘have nots’ where they have existed for most of recorded history.

The political elite on both the ‘left’ and ‘right’ ultimately act in their own self-interest, dispensing just enough largess to their respective ‘bases’ to keep them happy and toeing the line. President Bush was famously quoted at a 2004 Republican fundraiser referring to the ultra-rich as ‘his base,’ promoting tax and business schemes that benefited the top 1% or so of all Americans while economically screwing the mass of ‘values voters’ that actually propelled him back into office. Likewise, the Democrats waste plenty of air stumping for entitlement programs and tax cuts for the middle class and the poor, while at the same time pursuing corporate PAC donations that have helped bring about such wonders as the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 and Medicare Part D, which keeps the government from negotiating pharmaceutical prices with drug companies. Both sides claim to support different groups of ‘average Americans,’ but neither side seems willing to bite the corporate hand that feeds them. It’s the same old story of class warfare, albeit with corporations replacing the aristocracy on top.

The last few generations of Americans have had a remarkably equitable society. Almost half of US households in 2003 fell into the $25,000 – $75,000 earning bracket, which can be seen as the middle class of the society (opinions vary on what exactly constitutes the middle class, of course, but for purposes of this discussion, this statistic works as well as any other). The economic boom that started after World War II benefited the GI generation and their descendants to a degree rarely if ever seen before in history. Salaries and disposable incomes rose to the point where the ‘American Dream’ became reality for a large percentage of the population. Our current financial setup works because everyone gets something out of it: the poor get welfare and entitlements, the middle class get tax refunds, and the upper class get tax loopholes. How much longer that is the case is a matter up for discussion, for cracks are starting to show in many different areas.

On the financial front, I’ve often documented the issues facing the US economy. The national debt continues to rise while we continue to move as much of our manufacturing infrastructure overseas as possible. We replace high-paying jobs with lower ones while CEO’s compensation continues to rise. A worrisome trend that’s starting to show up is that foreign banks are starting to dump US Treasuries, the sale of which is what keeps the current economic bubble rolling. If this trend continues, a financial catastrophe is almost unavoidable. Michael Nystrom has written a very interesting article about the coming financial storm that is worth your time to read, positing that the Great Depression of the 1930’s may very well have been intentionally triggered, for while many Americans lost most if not all of their savings, a smaller group came out of the whole ordeal with more money and power than they had before. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

Gated communities have been slowly growing in popularity all over the world. In the states, it’s usually about status and exclusivity whereas in other parts of the world it’s also about security. The blog “The Coming Anarchy” has a great article about this phenomenon, noting the drive afoot in Georgia to have the rich, white part of Fulton County secede and break away from the poorer minority areas closer to downtown Atlanta. This same scenario could play out in other metro areas as tax dollars become harder to get ahold of, with suburban Hennepin county here in Minnesota someday deciding to break away from Minneapolis and some of the less-tony inner suburbs. The rich try to hold on to their privileges while kicking the less fortunate to the curb.

The world is just entering it’s long emergency, and the initial stages are still taking place on a global scale, where the average American can’t see the fallout. Right now there are food and fuel crises gripping nations in Africa and Asia as the poorer nations in these areas of the world are officially becoming the first ‘have nots.’ As time goes on, more and more third-world nations will get shunted into this category until the realm of the ‘haves’ is winnowed down to the nations of the first world, at which point they will start to turn on each other. This is when I think the first real cracks in American society will be seen.

The growth imperative is stretching the planet to its limits. We cannot extract petroleum and other natural resources any faster than we are currently doing. The burgeoning population of Earth demands massive amounts of food and energy, and we are reaching the point where a local problem such as a drought, unexpected declines in oil production, or the loss of a power plant can have regional or international ramifications. World grain reserves are dropping due to increased demand (for both food and biofuels) as well as production issues. Odds are good that the first world will turn a blind eye to the start of a serious die-off in the third world as long things stay far away from their shores, and as problems move closer to home, for that would simply continue the long-established pattern we operate under today: As long as the cheap goods keep coming, we as a society don’t give a rip where it came from, how much environmental devastation was caused in the production and transportation of the goods in question, nor whom was exploited as part of the process. Just keep the goods coming, and we’ll all be happy.

Eventually, the problems will come home to roost. What now is a slow trickle of layoffs will accelerate, and new jobs will continue to pay less and less while CEO’s continue to rake in the bonuses for making the numbers regardless of the human toll those numbers represent. The current transportation and power grids are publicly supported these days because almost everyone benefits from them. How popular will taxes for road construction be when automobiles are once again reserved for the privileged few who can afford them?

The true political orientation in the United States is between the wealthy and the masses. The left/right shtick keeps middle and lower class supporters of both sides distracted with social issues and nitpicky details while both parties pursue more or less the same pro-corporate, pro-globalization economic agenda. This works because most people don’t understand how the US economy works, or they simply don’t give a damn as long as they can continue to watch the NFL on Sundays. While most of the country is intellectually asleep, the slow strangulation of the middle and lower classes continues.

Money plays such a dominating role in American politics in part because the average voter doesn’t pay attention to government activity in non-election cycles. As long as the voters can be sold a viewpoint long enough to cast the right ballot, then the money spent on marketing to them is worth it. At some point in time, though, economic hardship will rudely awaken more and more Americans to reality. How far will this process gets before a critical mass of American voters wakes up and sees the truth of the situation? How many ‘have nots’ do we need to have before they start fighting back?

Sadly, I think the answer is ‘a lot.’ There’s something in the American psyche that promotes the winner-take-all mentality that pervades our thinking, and people who don’t measure up (or choose to not play that game) are losers. With that mode of thinking, many Americans will work desperately to try and stay on top, clinging to the skills and lifestyle that may not hold them in good stead for a future that will demand a simpler, low-energy way of life. There will be room in such a future for a few scholar/professional/bureaucrat types, but the majority of the workforce may go back to farming, crafts and general labor. In an economy with a flattened hierarchy, having an expensive law degree or background as a mortgage broker the like will be of little value.

I work in information technology, and as such realize that at some point in the future I may very well become redundant at work. This could be due to the economic effects of peak oil, or it could simply be the pressures of outsourcing and/or my company’s financial fortunes. While I feel my skill set is sufficient to keep me employed long into a general financial crisis, I do realize that there probably is an endpoint for my career long before I reach the age where I’m supposed to retire and play golf for the last 10-20 years of my life. I could go back to school and attempt to gain an advanced degree in some other field, but I have neither the will nor the inclination to do so. I work with my brain during the week, so I like to work more with my hands on the weekend. So, I’m learning about things like baking, gardening, permaculture and the like. Skills such as these will do well for me regardless of what the future brings.

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic in my prediction of the future, but the long emergency is just that, and what society will look like at the other end is anyone’s guess. The elite have their game plan, though, and once the middle class consumer ceases to be of use in keeping the current economy propped up, there will be less and less motivation to keep them living in the fantasy of the American dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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